Democracy and Education

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Education provides a problem for politicians. The best articulation of this problem that I have read is in Eric Kalenze’s book, “Education is Upside Down”. He presents the rise of standardised testing in the U.S. almost as a kind of last resort. It’s what politicians do when they run out of options and the system continues to fail to deliver.

This runs counter to the narrative absorbed by most of us who are involved in education. This suggests that politicians just want to interfere; that they subscribe to an ideology that sees markets and testing as articles of faith. If only we could be freed from political interference and given better resources then the education sector, and its experts, could transform education ourselves.

I think evidence and logic are against this latter view. With a few notable exceptions such as the U.K.’s Nick Gibb, politicians only have a surface understanding of education. It’s not that they lack interest, but it can be like trying to explain cricket to an American who is enthusiastically watching it for the first time.

This is due to the fact that politicians are generalists. They have to be because they can expect a number of different briefs in a successful ministerial career. They master the art of grasping just enough detail to push through. Politicians also have to have a fair amount of ego in order to put themselves up there in the first place, and this means that, for many of them, the education brief is a stepping stone to bigger and brighter roles.

In this context, a politician would love nothing more than to be able to listen to the experts, do what they say then take credit for the improvements that flow. Add in a little extra funding and you have the perfect recipe for career advancement.

In fact, a number of politicians have tried this approach. Under the Labour government in the U.K. in the early 2000s, expert advice was sought and implemented and funding for education grew enormously. This seemed to pay off in an increase in G.C.S.E. results but this turned out to be illusory; the result of grade inflation. When a range of international assessments were taken into account there was, if anything, a decline in performance.

Educationalists explain this away. The tests don’t measure the right things; the important outcomes of education cannot be measured and so on. But politicians are skilled at spotting hogwash and they are attuned to public opinion, clear about what they can and cannot sell on the doorstep.

So there are only two options open to them. Firstly, embrace the education sector and hope either that it will be different this time or that you will be in a different job by the time the wheels fall off. It’s easy enough to convince yourself of the former because we can always point to the past and rationalise that reforms failed because they didn’t go far enough. The benefit of this approach is an easy life. The education sector won’t fight you. Instead, their energy will be spent vying for appointments to head committees and reviews.

The other option is to stand and fight. But for what? What tools does a generalist politician have at his or her disposal in order to shift an entire sector? Well, unless you’re Michael Gove you won’t consider getting into the nitty gritty of the curriculum, so you reach into your ideological toolbag and pull out standardised testing or free schools.

The education systems we now have in the U.K., U.S., and Australia have arisen from politicians choosing a mixture of these two options. My sense is that Australian politicians are a little more inclined to hug an educationalist than U.K. politicians. Nevertheless, over time, successive ministers in both countries switch from one broad option to the other. The resulting policy mashup is what academics feverishly refer to as ‘neoliberalism’.

It would be good if we, as a profession, had an evidence-informed alternative to offer them.


4 thoughts on “Democracy and Education

  1. Mitch says:

    There are many contradictory ideologies so there are always going to be a compromises. I just feel that centre left politicians always give up on the issues that really matter such as reducing private education and instead embrace (mainly leftist) projects that may actually harm disadvantaged kids (relativist curriculum, inquiry, alternate university entrance, fads, etc.).

  2. David F says:

    Hi Greg, In the US we have the added dimension of anti-intellectualism and distrust of eductional institutions. This has manifested itself in the large homeschool movement (around 3.5% of the total school age pop–around 1.8 million students), foundations sponsored by the wealthy with ed agendas (Gates Foundation, and now Elon Musk), and various individuals/former journalists and faux intellectuals such as Campbell Brown and Michelle Rhee—all claiming to know better how to educate children. This doesn’t include the charter school movement, various ed tech start-ups, educationalists, etc. Thus, I think politicians in the US listen to (a) who gives them campaign $$$, (b) who fits their ideological tendencies and (c) who can help them fulfill a legislative agenda.

    Thus, I think in the US we have many more winds blowing than in AUS or the UK…

  3. stan says:

    Greg you’re missing an option. No doubt you have come across teachers who are firm believers in PBL, inquiry based learning and so on. To see what happens when one of these goes into politics and based on their expertise they become minister of education come visit Ontario.

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